“Let no-one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.”
Ephesians 5:6-7 NIVUK
What is an “empty word”? The word “empty” would imply nothingness. So an empty glass is devoid of anything, except for air of course. But regarding words, I can remember some years ago, we had a laugh in the office about a literary device consisting of a number of columns, each containing words or phrases. If a word or phrase was taken from each column at random and strung together to form a sentence, the result was grammatically correct but had no meaning. Gobbledegook. Sometimes our politicians are guilty of “empty words“. One such example is the frequently used and often meaningless phrase, “lessons will be learned”. But perhaps I’m just feeling a bit cynical today.
In the Epistle of James, we find the following verse, “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:25-16 NLT). Was James writing about the problem of empty words? Did the phrase “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” fall into the category of empty words?
But “empty words” can be deceptive, according to Paul. In Paul’s day there was a danger that people could fall into error, because there was no Canon of Scripture to provide New Covenant guidance. That came a few hundred years later. Of course there were various Epistles but Godly information was often lacking, heavily dependant on word of mouth, and movements such as the Gnostics, sprung up with their equivalent of “empty words“. Even today, it is possible to fall victim of false teaching – it is very easy to be plausible in what we say, allowing subtle shifts in emphasis to divert us from the purity of the Gospel. And before we know it we are into “empty words” territory. In Acts 17:11, we read “And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.” This is the key – if what someone is saying cannot be backed up by Scripture then what they are saying can be “empty words“. Over the years I have been a Christian, I have heard messages from the pulpit that don’t sit easily with me. Not often, I should say, but the result is that I seek the counsel of the Bible and of other trusted Christians, and discard or at least ignore, messages that are in danger of being deceptive.
God takes a dim view of erroneous or meaningless words. Words that would seek to divert His children away from the purity of His ways. The Psalmist expressed the situation well in Psalm 24:3-4 (ESV), “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” The word “false” implies that we have access to the truth, and, of course, we do.
In the nineteenth century two cults sprang up, both claiming that through the revelation given to their founders they were the true Christian church. I am of course writing here about the Mormon and Jehovah Witness churches. Their beliefs challenge the basic tenets of the Christian faith – for example, the Jehovah Witnesses do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, in spite of the Scriptural references to the contrary. I would suggest that what Paul was writing about in this verse was a warning to all who would try to add or subtract something from the purity of our faith. As pilgrims we need to be constantly on our guard, resisting the devil’s ploys, never deviating from the path before us, even though the “empty words” coming from those around us sound so good and plausible.